The End of Sympathy And Compromise

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I was raised in a decidedly left-wing family. My mother and father both marched on Washington in 1963 with Martin Luther King, Jr., and when I was a kid, my father practiced an annual ritual of yelling at the TV during President Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address.

But my parents, both psychologists, were empathic souls, constantly trying to understand why someone felt a certain way. At the dinner table we spent a great deal of time talking about why people might feel they way they do. Since conversations about politics when I was a kid were less about tactics and more about motivation, I learned my parents’ empathy, so as an adult I often feel as much for political opponents as with those I agree.

This week has been toxic for everyone in America. None of us have been left untouched by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination fight, and the race to declare our own side more aggrieved – regardless of what side we may claim – has left us all wounded and raw. Kavanaugh’s confirmation is our era’s Bleeding Kansas, with no winners, only losers and survivors more committed to scarring the opposition more than ever before.

Incredibly, we all recognize that the partisanship will only get worse. Like Kansas in the 1850’s, and the European military build up in the 1930’s, a perverse gravity pulls us towards more conflict fueled by the appropriate righteousness of our leaders, colleagues and loved ones injured by wounds both material and spiritual.

The ideologies of our political combat inhabit totally different frames of reference: the army of collective well-being versus the church of personal responsibility. Everything can be viewed through our nation’s First Conflict, where Hamiltonians governed to level the playing field while Jeffersonians pushed government aside to celebrate the triumph of the individual.

Each American era has been caught up in this conflict, from the Whiskey Rebellion, to the Civil War to the Progressive Era battles between unions and Pinkerton agents and the fights between Nixon’s “moral majority” and anti-war protestors.

Our First Conflict will never be resolved. Not because of pettiness or ignorance, but because each viewpoint is propelled by a deep moral philosophy. Gender complementarianism is inherently incompatible with gender workplace equity. Socialized health care and calls for a basic income conflicts with a conservative government of non-interference. Everyone can agree that racism and misogyny is abhorrent, but who is responsible for stopping it? The individual, or the collective?

“It will only get worse,” we all say, with no clear idea of what “worse” really means. We are all aggrieved now, with the most strident among us demanding we “stomp”, “destroy” or “obliterate” our political opposition. Sampling political Twitter, talk radio or cable news is like sampling heroin: The first jolt is exhilarating, but subsequent tastes leave us craving more righteousness, gradually obliterating equanimity, viewing America as nothing more than “us” and “them”. We are all addicts now.

My political beliefs have never been clearer to me, but today I weep for all Americans. Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation is emblematic of our new political reality: Although his ascension is a victory for conservatives, the manner of his confirmation has de-legitimized the new Supreme Court for a wide swath of America, making justice seem unattainable for those who opposed his confirmation.

American political conflict no longer allows for compromise. The Kavanaugh fight has instead told us that we must choose sides and fight to the end, no matter how terrible the result.